Songs of Innocence Review

U2 is a hard band to write a review for.  They come with so much history and baggage at this point, and one must try when writing a review to keep your eye on the donut and not the hole.  When an artist has put our groundbreaking work in the past that should neither give them a free pass on new work nor condemn it.  A piece of art should live in its own unique space.

I have long defended Bono and the gang to friends and loved ones.  However, even I felt like Bono had gone through the looking glass after reading a recent interview book.  He, and the other members of U2 have lived such extraordinary lives, more so than even most pop stars, is it even possible for them to relate to most people?

I am happy to report that their new album Songs of Innocence is perhaps their best album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind and possibly even the criminally underrated Pop. 

One of the reasons U2 has worked over the years as a band is that each member has unique qualities that compliment each other.  They are a true band.  Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton build the foundation that The Edge and Bono dance upon.  The Edge paints in soundscapes as much as he plays guitar.

One of the things that has been out of whack on their last few records is those relationships.  The Edge has been playing more traditional guitar.  Meanwhile the rhythm section has been mixed towards the background.  Bono, who was a superb lyricist from the late 80’s through the 90’s seemed to fall back into the sort of vague poetry that often plagued his earlier work on the last few records.  His lyrics often seemed like they wanted to say more than they were actually saying.

First off, Bono has righted the ship somewhat on this album.  There is a theme running through this album, a loose theme, and it seems as if Bono is looking at where he has come from and the music and politics that shaped his youth.  You will see many reviews comment upon this.  I have always felt that Bono was at his best when he was playing the sinner and asking the big questions.  This started in the late 80’s and came to fruition with the 90’s trilogy.  Other than the songs that dealt explicitly with his father on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb his lyrics started to feel bereft of meaning.  He wrote some good character studies on No Line on the Horizon,  but not enough that the album thematically gelled as a whole.  I still wouldn’t rank the new albums lyrics along side his best work, but in not worrying about making the big statement for once, and instead focusing on his own life, he has gained some of the ground that he lost.

Meanwhile the rhythm section also seems to establish themselves more than on previous albums since the 90’s.  That is not to say they are turning out the kind of indispensable grooves they once were, but it does seem to be an improvement.  Part of the problem is the mix.  The drums and bass are mixed more in the background than they once were.  This trend started on HTDAAB.

I still miss the days when The Edge came up with new guitar sounds on almost every track.  On Zooropa, the title track from that album, his guitar sounds like laser beams.  That album still sounds like the future 20 years on.

However, these criticisms aside they have crafted an album of relatively intelligent lyrics, super strong melodies, and they are once again relying on arrangements that play to the strengths of all four band members.  No one quite plays drums like Larry Mullen or guitar like the Edge.  Adam Clayton is a Zen master on bass.  This album reminds me more of early period U2 than anything they have claimed was influenced by that period in recent years.

Usually when I say something is the work of craftsmen, as opposed to divine inspiration,  I mean it as a slight dig.  However this album feels like it was constructed by master craftsmen.  This is not an industry changing album the way The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby was.  However this is an excellent collection of songs that is played by a band that slowly seem to be understanding their strengths again.  Most bands would be happy to create an album of such songs.

I was starting to think that U2’s best years were behind them.  While their last two records had moments, A Moment of Surrender, Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own, Unknown Caller, Yaweh,  and others, this album is made up of strong songs front to back.  If these songs feel like minor victories in a major catalog, there may be some truth in that.  However, this album shows that they are still capable of a complete artistic statement.  As someone that grew up on their music I hope that this is the first step in a creative rebirth.   Only time will tell.

How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?

I have been listening to the new Sinead O’Connor album today, but it is too complex of a record to absorb since its released last night at midnight.  The album, by the way, is called I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss.  I never really listened to Sinead O’Connor during the time when she was at the top of the charts.  I was off listening to whatever music a young male listens to back then.  She didn’t seem “cool” at the time, and that is my loss.  Luckily I have realized by now what a tremendous talent that she is.  

I discovered her best album first.  Her last album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, is one of my absolute favorite records of the last few years.  It is one of those albums that manages to blend the personal and political, where the artist is able to look out at the world with both empathy and disgust.  The album is also first rate when it comes to music and melody.  Every song is well arranged and every melody is full of hooks that will stick with you long after you have listened to the record.  However, where an album that takes on so many topics and styles might appear disjointed if you hadn’t heard it, the production is simply top notch and ties everything together.   The writing, most of which is O’Connor’s, also has a lot to do with the unity of the record.  An album with so many themes works because you get a sense that you are getting a full picture of the artist as a human being.  The record sounds warm and inviting, it sounds current, without the digital brittleness of many modern records, and without any production tricks that will sound dated in a few years.  When I listen to it, I can’t help but think of albums like Born to Run, Achtung Baby, and Vauxhall and I.  These are perfect records that haven’t aged a day since they were released.  Of course O’Connor’s album won’t change the world like those records did, because her media light wasn’t shining at its brightest when it was released, but it is in their caliber.  

First of all O’Connor can flat out sing.  She is also an excellent writer.  The very things that got her in trouble, even though she was right on SNL if not always, is the very thing that makes her such a unique talent.  You get the sense that whatever she is singing is something that she deeply believes in that moment.  She may change her mind in the next minute, and infuriate people, but in the moment she is completely true to her convictions.  

This album is political, but not in a current events kind of way, unless you count the songs that still seem to hold a grudge for the religion that did her, and so many others damage in Ireland.  Her songs are too character driven, too personal, to be merely be songs that are ripped from the newspapers.  She writes a song from the point of view of a junkie, where despite the junkie’s obvious failings, and the song’s dark mood, you can’t help but feel empathy for the character.  This at a time when the War on Drugs is appearing more absurd then ever.  However, there are no statements made, just on characters story.  One of the most powerful songs on the album is the closing tour de force V.I.P.  In this song she tears down celebrity and religion in equal measures.  I know some of you may find the fact that a celebrity is taking on celebrity as too much to bear.  However, the passion and the intelligence in this song should silence any criticism.  

O’Connor writes about joy in love with all of the same passion and intelligence that she uses in her more scathing works.  Writing a love song that actually is infused with joy and love is a lot harder to do than one would think.  It’s hard to describe an emotion that is so often talked about in cliches with any kind of originality.  On several songs she manages this feat with ease.  Above I have posted a live version of the single for this record, The Wolf is Getting Married.  I dare you to watch that video at say that she cannot sing.  

If you are a fan of intelligent pop music and the power of song than this is a record that I can’t recommend enough.  She may not be as fashionable as she once was, but there she is, off on her own, with the same passion and conviction that she had when everyone was watching.  

 

 

 

New Sinead O’Connor Album

I’m excited for the release of the new Sinead O’Connor album on August 12th.  It is called I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss.  Above is the single that is out for the album now.  Her last album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, is one of my favorite albums of the last few years.  If her new one comes anywhere close to it I’ll be happy.  She is an absolutely fearless artist.  Although that fearlessness has occasionally lead to a spotty recording career, as she has not always found the right production for her songs while exploring many different genres, when she is at her best she is transcendent.  I’ll never quit saying she was right about the Catholic sex abuse scandal, before anyone wanted to hear about it, and was vilified for speaking this truth.  Although personally and commercially she suffered, she has never quit speaking truth to power.  I’m eternally glad that she is out there.  

If you are biased against her, but willing to give her a new look, or don’t know anything about her, try her How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? album .  Her Gospel Oak E.P. is also extremely good.   I know many people prefer her earlier work, but I feel that it is hit or miss, as I said before, because of some of the production choices.  There are songs I love on all of her records, but those two works that I mentioned above, are the ones that I listen to the most.  

 

 

Dark Despair and Gallows Humor

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In order to not completely burn myself out on the new Morrissey disc, World Peace is None of your Business, which I could easily listen to a thousand times until I need to move on, I have been mixing it up with some Frank Sinatra.  I especially like Sinatra’s music where he is drowning in gloom.  This would be on albums like Only the Lonely and No One Cares.  These are albums filled with maudlin songs full of despair over lost love.  Unlike teenage pop songs, where no matter how sad the music is you know that they will eventually be OK, because they are young and will bounce back, this is music for adults, where all hope has gone out of the window.  In teenage pop, which I love as well, it feels like a tragedy, but we know it is not.  On these Sinatra albums they are the sound of a middle age man running out of time to correct his mistakes.  In fact, the narrator of each song, may be out of time, forever destined to walk the earth bearing the grief of his lost love, like Marley’s Ghost with his chains.

When things go this jet black, maybe it’s just me, but I also feel like they go through the looking glass and cross over to a certain kind of gallows humor.  This in no way dims the true sadness of these records, nor do I mean it in any kind of ironic sense as if I’m smirking at the albums.  But tragedy and comedy have always been very close to me.  It is through this sort of transition between tragedy and dark, dark comedy, that emotional release comes and the records actually become therapeutic.  Instead of wallowing in the despair of the narrator, as voyeurs into the world of the narrator, we can exercise our own emotions and transcend them.

Line of Best Fit Review of World Peace is None of Your Business

http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/morrissey-world-peace-is-none-of-your-business-harvest?

The above review by Michael James Hall is the best review I have read yet of Morrissey’s new album, World Peace is None of Your Business.  I don’t agree with a few of his small criticisms,  and in the beginning he makes the same mistake of many journalists by saying that basically this is a return to form.  Although it has been five years since Morrissey put out a new album, and I do believe his new album to be the best of his newer releases, all of his last three studio albums have been essential listening for me.  Anyway, these are small complaints because Hall does largely get why this is simply a fantastic release both musically and lyrically.  This record is not only one of the crowning achievments in Mozzer’s career, but is absolutely one of the best albums put out by anyone in recent years.  I have only heard the album three times, as travel has prevented me from streaming it more, but each time my jaw has been on the floor.  If you are looking for intelligent music that is also subversive,  very melodic, and musically inventive,  look no further.  Once I get home, and get my hands on a physical copy, I intend to explain in full detail why I think so highly of this record.  I am clearly a fan, as anyone else reading this blog can tell, but this record belongs in any intelligent music lovers collection.  It is that good.  On first listen some the melodies seem complex and challenging, but by listen three every one  of them is ingrained in your head, never to leave.  Also, even if Morrissey had been taken off the record, his band is reaching new heights, creating music that is stunning in its own right.  I know that I have been writing a lot Morrissey lately, maybe too much to some reader’s consternation,  but I am simply over the moon about this album.  It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…

You can stream the record here in full in the states:
http://www.npr.org/2014/07/06/326925957/first-listen-morrissey-world-peace-is-none-of-your-business

nme.com is streaming it in England. 

Fantastic Failure

This is the video for Fantastic Failure from Kristeen Young ‘ s V the Volcanic.  Her new album The Knife Shift is out now.  It is an extraordinary album that is not for the faint of heart.  The  Knife Shift  was produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T-Rex,  Thin Lizzy, and Morrissey among many others) and features Dave Grohl on drums. She is a true original and I am very excited to announce that I will be posting an interview with Kristeen next month.  Stay tuned…

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Revisited

I have set several rules for myself for this blog.  One of the things that I have promised to do on this blog is to let my writings stand as they are, whether good or bad.  Sometimes I reread things I have written and cringe and sometimes I am quite proud.  I can always change my mind in writing something new, but I will not reedit anything I have written other than to correct spelling and grammar errors.  This way I can be as true as possible in the moment. 

One of the recent blogs that makes me cringe is my recent review of the Lana Del Rey album.  In order to point out the small faults that I found in it I feel that I was too harsh and did not explain in full what I actually like about it.  It is actually writing music reviews that I often feel the least adequate, despite music being a subject that I know a great deal about.  This is because often first impressions of a record are incorrect.  The best albums are often growers and ones that are great initially often wear out quickly. 

I feel and have always felt that the most essential part of any kind of music with a vocal is the vocal.  I could listen to a brilliant singer singing over a Casio keyboard.  Conversely I can’t stand even the most brilliant musical offerings if the singer is singing in a voice that doesn’t register emotionally with me and whose words are full of clichés.  The human voice in song is the best window into someone’s soul.  And whatever criticism one throws at Lana Del Rey, I believe that in her singing she has found her own unique voice.  It is instantly recognizable and it is filled with beauty and pain.  Singing is not something that can be faked.  Although I feel slightly that she could have been done a better service by her collaborators on her new record, this by no means gets in the way of me enjoying the record overall or feeling that it has value as a piece of art.  In fact it is quite possible that as I continue to listen to it I will grow to like the very things that at first threw me off.  I know that this is a record that I will continue to spin for years to come.  It has a damaged late night feeling that sounds fantastic once the sun has gone down. 

How do you articulate that something is lacking, while at the same time making it clear that even with its faults it far surpasses many of the other things on the airwaves?  This is tricky business.  Are the arrangements as well done as a Dusty Springfield record?  The answer would be no.  Are they better than many other things happening in mainstream pop at the moment?  The answer to that would be yes.  Both questions are both fair and unfair.  You want to judge something in and of itself, but it is hard to not compare it to what has come before it and what is going on around it.  When you talk about a piece of art you must try to find that balance between taking it for what it is and also trying to look at it in it’s place in the greater spectrum of things. 

From making records myself I know how many things are out of one’s hands.  A bad mix can take the air out of a good arrangement.   Even for someone like Lana Del Rey who probably has a large budget, there are still budgetary concerns and time restraints.  You are also in the hands of other musicians, producers, and engineers.  You start with an idea in your imagination and slowly reality chips away at it.  Sometimes this can be to the benefit of something and sometimes not.  That is just part of life and part of the process of creating something that involves other people.  One has to fight for things that one believes in and also learn to let certain things go. 

So when I criticize something that I like all of this is weighing upon me.  I write quickly, another one of my rules, to try to get as close to the emotion that I am feeling as best possible.  Sometimes emotions can lead you astray. 

In trying to point out this particular record’s faults I feel that I did not do its strengths justice.  Whatever the perceived media image of her it is clear that she is not playing by any rules other than her own.  The record is dark and murky and displays uncomfortable emotions at times.  This is not the kind of music that is going to get played on morning radio as people try to forget the day ahead of them, unless somewhere there is someone in power that is a fan that slips it in.  It sounds timeless, but could not have been made at any time other than now.  This is the sound of a real human voice that feels the struggle of being alive.  She sounds older than her years and beaten down by the world, but somehow beautiful and fearless despite this.  Even though I feel there are some things in the production that could be better, she was brave enough to make a record that didn’t kowtow to modern recording trends.  Yes, there are some faults with this record, but maybe it is all the more human because of it.  I am sure that I will keep listening to it and as I change so will my opinion of it.  Whatever it is though, it is not disposable.